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Blaser R8 Ultimate: A Sensational Single-Gun Solution

The versatility of Blaser's R8 Ultimate switch-barrel rifle allows you to consolidate without losing a thing, especially capabilities.

Blaser R8 Ultimate: A Sensational Single-Gun Solution
(Photo courtesy of David Draper)

Hunters have long argued about what guns a person really needs. A rimfire, of course. And then a small-caliber centerfire for predators and such. And then something a little, or a lot, stouter when you move up to big and dangerous game. It’s an argument that gets discussed around campfires and on barstools around the country. Heck, around the world. And there is no one good and right answer. Or is there?

Now, this isn’t a discussion about how many guns a hunter needs, because we know that number depends on your bank account, spousal arrangement and a host of other factors. But what if there’s a single-gun solution to having just the right amount of calibers and cartridges available in your gun safe, packed in a lightweight, accurate package that’s easy to grab and go when the mood strikes (if not a little harder on the gun budget than some would like)?

Blaser’s switch-barrel design has been around for a few decades now, first with the R93 and, more recently, the R8. But with antigun legislation heating up with talk of gun registration, it’s worth revisiting Blaser’s still-innovative design with the most recent iteration—the R8 Ultimate.

Straight-Pull Speed

Though much has been written, in this magazine and others, about Blaser’s straight-pull action, American hunters are still unsure about the concept. Why depart from the classic, proven turn-bolt design found on nearly every other bolt-action made? For Europeans, who often shoot moving or running game during driven hunts, and have little to no access to autoloaders, the fast repeatability of a straight-pull makes a ton of sense. But do Americans, who have had it hammered into them by a half-century of hunter safety instructors, to only take broadside shots at standing game, need that kind of speed?

After handling both the R8, and other straight-pull rifles, I’d argue yes. Culling wild pigs has become a favorite, and necessary, pastime for hunters who share space with burgeoning hog populations. Same goes for whitetail hunters in some places where antlerless tags are abundant. And predator hunters, calling multiple coyotes into a set, can benefit from a speedy straight-pull action, should they prefer an accurate bolt-action over an autoloading AR platform. But, really, any big-game hunter should appreciate the ability to quickly take a follow-up shot. And, if the success of the Savage Impulse is any indication, American hunters are finally figuring out just how enjoyable, and accurate, a straight-pull rifle can be.

For hunters used to turning a bolt when working a rifle, it takes a few strokes of the straight pull to get used to running the Blaser’s action. And I really mean few. Within two or three dry-fires, the action becomes natural. And thanks to the Ultimate’s comfortable stock, with thumbhole, palm swell and adjustable comb, shooters will also quickly notice it’s a lot easier to stay in the scope when working a straight-pull bolt, making an accurate follow-up shot even quicker.

photo of rifle safety and bolt
The tang-mounted safety is stiff but functions well, and decocks the rifle to make it safe when in the rearward position. (Photo courtesy of David Draper)

No worries about the safety of the straight-pull action either. The proven design relies on a ring of segmented fingers around the bolt that act as a collet to lock the action firmly into battery via a channel encircling the barrel near the bore. Pulling the bolt handle backwards releases the wedge holding the collet in place and brings the bolt assembly rearward to eject the cartridge via a single plunger. The bolt locks into place when the tang-mounted safety is engaged and can only be moved by pushing the safety (which also serves as the actual cocking device) forward. The safety does take a bit of effort to move it into the firing position. Putting it back on safety requires the shooter to press their thumb slide slightly forward and down, wherein the slide pops back into the safe position, decocking it. Hard to describe, but easy to use once you figure it out.

A Sum of its Parts

The heart of the Blaser R8 is an alloy frame that serves as something like a receiver and an integral bedding block. It’s also about the only part on the rifle that is not removable. With everything that can be easily taken off—bolt carrier, bolt, trigger assembly, barrel, scope rail—laid out in front of you, the rifle looks like a schematic. And all these pieces slide or snap back into place without tools, save for the barrel. It attaches via a pair of screws in the bottom of the forend just ahead of the trigger housing. Blaser includes a T-handle driver to simplify swapping barrels.

The box magazine is detachable, but what’s most interesting is the entire trigger group comes with it. Simply pinch the tabs at either side of the trigger guard and the whole assembly drops out. This could be considered an added safety feature since the rifle is incapable of firing without the trigger in place. The housing incorporates a magazine insert that is easily swapped out when changing to a different cartridge grouping. (The appropriate insert is included with the barrel, as is the bolt head for that chambering.) The R8 can also be top loaded.

rifle barrel with mounting surfaces
(Photo courtesy of David Draper)

Because nothing about the R8 is standard, even the scope-mounting system gets the Blaser treatment. Since there’s not a receiver to mount a scope to, and therefore no holes for a rail, optics get mounted to the barrel via four cuts in the top of each barrel to accommodate the company’s cantilever or saddle-mount rail. The rail, which comes separately, is pricey, retailing around $450. But its quick-release design—a pair of thread-tightened, locking levers—all but guarantees an exact return to zero when the scope is removed. It can also quickly and easily move the scope and mount from barrel to barrel. Less expensive (though still not cheap) aftermarket alternatives are available. I opted for a version from Talley that does away with the quick-change levers, but still allows for easy removal via a pair of screws. As you’ll see in the accuracy test below, it performed flawlessly.

Like the cartridge selection, the R8 comes in a wide variety of standard and custom stock options, from synthetic versions to the finest walnut stocks to lightweight carbon models, to stocks inlaid (and overlaid) with leather and even crocodile skin. It seems the ceiling on what’s available is set only by your credit line. There’s even an online configurator that you can spend hours on mixing and matching until you get an R8 that is just right.

black adjustable stock
The toolless adjustable comb allows every user to get the best fit with their rifle without having to carry tools to the range. (Photo courtesy of David Draper)

My R8 Ultimate came with a black synthetic stock with thumbhole, palm swell and Schnable forend. It’s extremely comfortable, shoulders quickly and, thanks to the innovative toolless adjustable comb, fits me perfect. Other versions include a toolless adjustable recoil pad that extends the length of pull just as easily and an available recoil reduction system.

Recommended


One Rifle, Many Cartridges

Once you spring for the R8, the world is at your fingertips. By my count, there are 48 different cartridges available, from .17 HMR to .500 Jeffery. That’s right, with just the turn of a couple screws to swap barrels and a quick change of the bolt head and magazine insert, hunters can go from squirrel stalker to elephant hunter within a minute or two. Swapping optics from barrel to barrel is just as simple, meaning a hunter can have one rifle, a few barrels and a single optic to cover all their needs. Now, admittedly, it still might be cheaper to buy 3-4 different mid-priced rifles, but once you start buying a scope for each, total expenditures start to rise into a similar price range as the base model R8.

For my test rifle, I opted for a .300 Win. Mag., a favorite of mine, and a chambering that nearly covers most of the hunting I’d ever hope to do. However, I also requested a barrel in 6.5 PRC (because a 7 PRC barrel isn’t available) and a .22 Conversion Kit. When it comes to bolt heads, Blaser breaks up their cartridge designation into nine different groupings. Although the 6.5 PRC falls in a different caliber group than the .300 Win. Mag., it happens to use the same bolt head, but requires a different magazine insert. The .22, obviously, requires switching both. The magazine inserts are embossed with compatible cartridges.

A Rimfire R8

rifle with action open
(Photo courtesy of David Draper)

At $1,700 for the .22 kit, converting an R8 to rimfire is admittedly a pricey proposition. But, if you already own an R8, it’s worth considering stepping down to a .22 or other rimfire. Why? Because there’s no better way to train for hunt than trigger time, and the .22 option makes shooting an R8 both fun and cost effective. You’ve splurged on the hunt of a lifetime, whether that’s driven game in Europe or a trip to Africa for both plains and dangerous game. So why not spend the time between now and departure shooting your rifle as much as you can? With a simple barrel and bolt swap, you can downsize to a .22 and practice plinking at various distances and even shoot moving targets such as the bouncing bunny station at a five-stand course. Then, the week before departure, screw in your hunting barrel, mount the scope and ensure you’re zeroed. So, yes, the kit puts a dent in your wallet, but what price can you put on making an accurate, ethical shot on that trophy of a lifetime?

Swapping bolt heads is relatively easy, even for a fumble-thumbed shooter like myself. Simply slide the bolt carrier completely out of the receiver, turn it over and, using a small screwdriver (or a stout thumbnail) press the lever lock on the underside of the carrier to the left and swing it out. Twist the bolt head to unlock it and pull it free. Replace it with the new bolt head, taking care to slide it over the firing pin, twist it into place and lock the lever down. Do it once and every time after that will take you less than a minute.

The selling point of the barrel swap is repeatability, and the R8 has a reputation for holding its zero no matter how many times you change barrels or remove the scope. But, of course, I had to test that. I opted to shoot three shots, removing the barrel and scope after the group, replacing the barrel and optic and shooting three more shots to see if the point of aim had shifted. I did this with both the .300 Win. Mag. and 6.5 PRC barrels.

Despite its reputation for reliability, testing the R8 was still a shock. The .300 Win. Mag., shooting Browning 185-grain BXR ammo, printed an initial group a little more than 1 inch. After removing and replacing both the barrel and scope, the center of the second group, while not right on top of the first group, was less than an MOA to the right, with holes from both groups touching. Out of the 6.5 PRC barrel, Hornady’s 143-grain ELD-X printed a .74-inch group. Again, I quickly removed and replaced both barrel and optic, and put a second group .27 inches above the first. If that’s not repeatable reliability, I don’t know what is.

Blaser R8 Ultimate Specs

  • Action: Straight-pull, bolt-action
  • Caliber: .17 HMR to .500 Jeffery
  • Stock: Synthetic, thumbhole
  • Length: 43.5 in.
  • Weight: 7 lbs., 11 oz. (bare)/9 lbs., 10 oz. (scoped)
  • Length of pull: 14 in.
  • Optics: Proprietary scope mounting system
  • Price: $5,921 (as tested, dictated by configuration)
  • Website: blaser.de/us



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